Wordplay: A Riff on a Rib

If God took a bone from the man and created woman out of it, why are there no bones missing from the male skeleton?

Before you embark on perusal of the following text, I should warn you that at first glance it might seem a tad ribald. But banish any blue thoughts from your mind. This is all in the name of my layman's study of matters biblical-theological-semantic-biological, with a substantial dose of gender studies on the side.

It all started when I stumbled on a quote attributed, on the Web, to the one and only Marilyn Monroe (who was born in 1926 and died 50 years ago this Sunday, August 5 ): "Women who seek to be equal to men, lack ambition." Further online examination revealed that she most probably did not say this, and if she did, she was quoting Timothy Leary, although it is not clear if it was his sober opinion, or one under the influence of that substance later nicknamed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

Since the assumption here seems to be that even if "all men" might have been "created equal," man and woman were not, I decided to consult the most popular and widely accepted source: the Book of Books. There it says: (a ) "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them" (Genesis 1:27 ); and (b ) "And Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which Lord God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man" (Gen. 2:21-22 ).

Ay, there's the rub: Why a rib (tzela, in the original Hebrew ) - a very ordinary bone, half of one of the 12 pairs of such bones, out of a total of 206 bones altogether in an adult human body? The Jewish sages of the 9th century C.E. felt that such a mundane choice on the part of the Almighty raised a question, for which they provided the following explanation : "God hitbonen [looked and thought] from which part of the man's body the woman should be created. He said: I will not create her from the head, so that she will not raise up her head [i.e., be haughty]; not from the eye, so that she will not be curious [desiring to see everything]; not from the ear, so that she will not be an eavesdropper; not from the mouth, so that she will not be talkative; not from the heart, so that she will not be jealous; not from the hand, so that she will not be touching everything; not from the foot, so that she will not be a runabout [going out to the marketplace]; but from the rib, which is a concealed place within man: Even when man stands naked, it is concealed. For every part of her that God created, he said to her: 'Modest woman, modest woman'" (Midrash Tanhuma ).

The midrash goes on to show that the thusly created women confounded good God's aims (citing various examples such as, among others, three out of four of the matriarchs ), but I will not go there here and now. Other sages, trying to explain the seeming discrepancy between versions (a ) and (b ) of the Creation, as quoted above, suggested the possibility of not reading the sacred writings literally, but rather metaphorically: They proposed that (a ) the male and female were originally created as a one androgynous body, which shortly afterward was (b ) severed along the side, at chest level. They pointed out that out of the 50 times that a Hebrew word based on the root tzadi-lamed-ayin appears in the Bible, only twice (in Genesis 2 ) does it refer to a rib per se; in most of the other mentions, it connotes the "side" (as in the side of the Tabernacle ).

So, maybe the bone God removed from the man, after first putting him under ("God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man" ) and then "clos[ing] up the place with flesh instead thereof" was not a rib after all? That is the hypothesis proposed by biologist Scott F. Gilbert and Ziony Zevit, a biblical scholar of renown, in their study "Congenital human baculum deficiency: the generative bone of Genesis 2:21-23," published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in July 2010.

After pointing out that tzela could actually mean "side" and that, within the context of the human body, this could be taken to refer to an appendage, the authors take a very literal approach: If God had taken a bone from the man and created a woman out of it, why - they ask - is no bone missing from male skeletons, as compared to those of women? Indeed, one of the Aramaic translations of the Bible (Targum Yonatan, dating to sometime between the 6th and 11th centuries C.E. ) addresses that problem by claiming that man was originally endowed with 13 ribs on the left side of his rib cage. Furthermore, they argue, if God had "closed up the place with flesh instead thereof," that would imply that there should have been "some suture- or scar-like mark on the torsos of human males that is not found on females. But there is no such mark on males - at least not near their ribs."

If Gilbert and Zevit, serious scholars both, seem to be raising rhetorical (or perhaps dumb, by plain secular non-believers' standards ) questions, it is because they think they have a plausible answer: They propose that the bone taken was not a rib, but a baculum, defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as "the penis bone of certain mammals. The baculum is one of several bones dissociated from the rest of the body skeleton. It is found in all insectivores, bats, rodents, and carnivores and in all primates except humans." It is present, explains Wikipedia, "in other primates, such as the gorilla and chimpanzee. The bone aids sexual intercourse."

The two write that this could explain what is meant by God "closing over" the flesh afterward: "This detail explains the 'surgery scar' or raphe, the seam joining the two parts of the [male] organ." That scar is, supposedly, evidence showing the first man Adam that a bone was taken from part of his body. Thus he can say: "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh."

Gilbert and Zevit also point out that in a good number of the many (318 ) instances in which the Hebrew word basar (flesh ) is mentioned in the Bible, it is in a sexual context (the remainder have to do with sacrifices ) and hence "carnal knowledge."

The presence of a baculum (in Latin the word means staff or rod, which makes one think of the rod in Moses' hands that could become a serpent, as per God's will, at a moment's notice ) in mammals, is explained by the fact that a bone in the penis allows a male to carry on copulating for a long time with a female, which can be a distinct advantage in some mating strategies. See OED: "boner: North American vulgar slang an erection of the penis." Also Merriam-Webster: "argumentum ad baculum: argument of the staff, appeal to force."

One of the possible explanations for the bone's absence in the human male, speculates evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 30th anniversary edition of his book "The Selfish Gene", is that such a situation allows for sexual selection by females looking for signs of good health in prospective mates. The reliance of the human penis solely on hydraulic means to achieve a rigid state makes it particularly vulnerable to blood pressure variation. Poor erectile function betrays not only physical states such as diabetes and neurological disorders but mental states such as stress and depression. Is Gilbert and Zevits' interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis better than that of others? Are they right? I don't know, and I dare say no one else does. Nor can there be for a nonbeliever a truly "right" or "wrong" interpretation of a sacred - or perhaps any - text. The Gilbert-Zevit version simply appeals to me because it opens up a whole, ripe field for cultural-historical speculation and presents some sort of a poetical gender justice.

One can speculate that the act of circumcision - "And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you" (Gen. 17:11) - can be seen as yet another version of God making - blatantly - a point of "blunting" the main manly physical attribute. Furthermore, the idea of a female circumcision may be seen in that context as a particularly bizarre and perverted effort to make the female "equal" to the male in terms of entering a covenant with a deity.

In terms of poetic justice between the genders I particularly like the idea of a female being created by God out of a generative male organ, and becoming - at least metaphorically - an embodiment or incarnation in the flesh of ezer kenegdo, the "helpmeet," which indeed helps when it is erect, and hinders when not.

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." As a person close to me posted on my Facebook wall: "Marriage is a relationship in which one person is always right, and the other is the husband."

And now let's all go and have some spare ribs.